Tuesday, July 29, 2008

I have accepted the challenge and wordled this blog's RSS feed. Not surprisingly, "Greek" is the most prominent.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Some Thoughts on Ancient Language Pedagogy

Sometime last semester I was talking with a girl in my Greek class, and she asked me if Greek had ever been a spoken language. After a pause, I replied that Modern Greek is still spoken, and that the Greek we’re studying (Attic) used to be spoken. She then asked me, if it was once a spoken language, why we’re learning only to read it and not write it, speak it, or listen to it.

Though hardly anyone asks it, the question is an excellent one. The best answer I know of is that it’s much easier to learn to read a language than it is to write it, speak it, or listen to it. Graduate students (supposedly) can learn to read French texts written by native speakers inside of two semesters, whereas typical undergraduate French classes don’t reach that level until the third or fourth year. Why waste time learning to speak, listen to, or write a language, the argument goes, when you only need to read it? Hence the numerous classes such as “French for Reading” and “German for Reading” which are offered at the graduate level. And these are modern languages; the argument appears even stronger when ancient languages are in question. Nobody speaks them anymore; there’s no need to write in them; and what’s the point of listening to them? Reading appears to be the only skill worth developing. And reasoning thus, teachers came up with the typical method of learning Greek and Latin: memorize paradigms, memorize vocabulary, and translate sentences into English.

But this approach has never been flawless. Because of my own experience, and from what I’ve seen of my fellow students’ experience, beginning Greek and Latin students quickly begin drowning in paradigms. Fluent reading of text depends upon instant recognition of forms: but when a Greek teacher has a class memorize several different combinations of tense, voice, and mood in quick succession, only the most diligent students will not be confused. Also, half the fun of learning a language is learning to communicate in it: but after a year of Greek, I couldn’t carry on the most basic of conversations if I were somehow transported back to fifth-century Athens. I could say more things in French after eight weeks of class than I could say in Greek after thirty-two weeks. In fact, I can’t really say anything in Greek. I can read a bit, and write still less.

Why don’t teachers insert some conversational Greek or Latin into the first-year classes? For a variety of reasons. Some are too set in their ways. Some haven’t really thought about it. But there are some, like Dr. Randall Buth, who are leading the way in changing ancient language pedagogy. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any of his material; but he regularly makes valuable contributions to the B-Greek list, and anyone who teaches people to actually speak Koine Greek and Classical Hebrew is worthy of praise.

I think I’ve mentioned previously what I’ll be doing next year for a part-time job: tutoring Greek and Spanish. Our Writing Center has never offered Greek tutoring before, so it’ll be really interesting to see how it goes. I’m hoping I can encourage the Greek I students to know their paradigms inside and out, and to strive for real comprehension and not just ability in making literal English translations of the Greek text.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

It's a small world . . .

File this one under “It’s a small world after all”: I was down at the marina in Panama City today and saw a boat for sale (for the very reasonable and affordable sum of $36,900). Then I noticed that the area code of the owner’s phone number was 423. And sure enough, it was registered in Tennessee. What are the odds?